Sunday, July 31, 2011

Gershwin can't have been a gardener.

It takes imagination I know, but this WILL be gorgeous!

Some people host a summer BBQ, inviting neighbors and friends over for a cold drink, chatting together as time slips slowly by. Somehow we find ourselves hosting a BBQ, sharing drinks AND wrestling an excavator through a veritable seabed of blue clay - all at the same time.

It all started when I casually mentioned the fact that the blackberry infested, reed canary grass thicket with the stunning focal point of a very large dead maple tree would be the perfect place for my ‘drop-dead-gorgeous-must-have-been-designed-by–Karen’ border. Little did we know. Apart from slugs, salamanders and snakes this prime real estate was also inhabited by discarded creosote soaked railroad ties, beer cans, plastic bags, lumps of concrete and enough clay to keep the Staffordshire Potteries in business for another decade. If you have been following my blog from the beginning you may recall the post 'Don't tell me about bog gardens' where we began to address the drainage problems (aka inland lakes). We have been busy since then.

The original location was much too close to the house
A pretty cedar cabin was already on the property but in less than an ideal location, so using a Skid Steer (a tractor with a big bucket on the front), metal pipes, hunks of wood and lots of muscle the cabin was moved into this new border a week or so ago. Of course it poured with rain the whole time so the grass looks as though we have hosted the NASCAR races. However, the cabin looks perfect in its new location, or at least it will do when I’ve added trees and shrubs to nestle it in. Right now you need imagination.

The deck removed and roof supported - the move begins
The next big toy to play with was the excavator – a mean machine with an insatiable appetite for soil and rocks. My husband has been digging additional drainage trenches this weekend and mercifully didn’t hit our well water and power lines. We did have an ‘expert’ map out where these were supposed to be – he was wrong. Maneuvering one of these monsters is like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time; with your feet. It takes far more coordination than I can muster but Andy seemed happy enough with his life sized Tonka toy, although it had about as much suspension as a buckin' Bronco.

Moles at work - with help from the excavator

Now our back garden looks like a war zone with mountains of soil heaped up in rows as though the moles have been partying for a week. Actually they have but that is in another part of the garden.

So here we are at the end of a nice sunny Seattle weekend, friends and neighbors stopping by for a BBQ, drinks being poured and a leisurely stroll together around the garden to see what’s new. It’s just that in the Chapman household that also means navigating trenches, 8 tons of gravel and 110' of drainage pipe. And instead of the men admiring the latest car or motor bike they discuss the merits of various tractors and related toys. Oh and next weekend? We’ll probably be moving 100 yards of soil around with a Bobcat. And having a BBQ.

"Summertime ~ and the livin’ is easy……."

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

My Favorite Designer – Nature

The only sounds as I walked slowly through the mossy forest were of the raindrops dripping softly from the trees. Ancient Douglas firs towered overhead while dappled light shone down onto the carpet of sword ferns, each frond glistening as though coated with varnish. 

Ancient boulders were softened in a cloak of green and new trees grew from old, their roots entwined like a child clinging to its mother. Gnarled, twisting branches formed intricate silhouettes, inviting me to pause and trace the patterns.

The monochromatic color scheme revealed the many shades of green while Nature displayed its artistry in combining the spiky pine needles with the western red cedar’s aromatic scales and the oval, leathery Rhododendron leaf juxtaposed with the soft palm shaped foliage of the big leaf maples.

Deer ferns nestled amongst fallen tree stumps and wild berried shrubs displayed their jewels.

We have much to learn – and much to savor.

All photographs taken at the Bloedel Reserve, Bainbridge Island, WA

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Glimpsed Views – adding mystery with see-through plants

Tantalizing - the partially obscured chairs beckon
through a transparent curtain of tall verbena
Does your garden seem lifeless? Predictable? Even after taking into consideration size, shape, texture and color of each plant there are times when the garden can seem to be missing something. Gardens are most interesting when not everything is viewed at once but revealed in stages, creating a sense of anticipation and mystery. One way to do this is to use see–though plants, creating a scrim through which other parts of the garden can be glimpsed. These scrim plants typically have basal foliage or very finely textured leaves, thin wiry stems and loosely held flowers. Such plants often provide movement and add an ethereal quality to a border which might otherwise appear rather stiff.

Perhaps my favorite plant for this purpose is the self-seeding perennial tall verbena (Verbena bonariensis). At 5’ tall with stiff stems supporting a multitude of purple flowers these tender perennials make a significant statement no matter where you put them. In my last garden I had planted these amongst my roses as a counterpoint to the oversized fragrant blooms. They self seeded easily in the gravel paths and garden borders, creating unexpected and often wonderful combinations (nature is often the best designer). And despite never getting watered they looked fabulous all season

White 'whirling butterflies' forms a veil
which softens the bold form and rigid
stems of the coneflower

The dancing white flowers of Gaura lindheimeri give this perennial its common name ‘whirling butterflies’. Several varieties are now available with foliage in various shades of pink or green as well as variegated forms. The taller varieties make a wonderful scrim, adding movement to rigid flowers such as coneflowers (Echinacea sp.)

Baby’s breath (Gypsophila paniculata) is the quintessential scrim plant, a favorite ‘filler’ in wedding bouquets. It needs alkaline soil so does not do well here in the Pacific Northwest. For those with the right conditions, however,  these airy white flowers form a delicate veil amidst its companions.

Even if it never flowered I would grow meadow rue (Thalictrum sp) for its maidenhair fern-like foliage. The delicate lilac flowers atop 6’ tall stems of the lavender mist meadow rue (T. rochebrunianum) are an attractive bonus in late spring, making attractive cut flowers for the home and a welcome transparency in the garden.

If you are looking for something in the burgundy color family take a look at Knautia macedonica (sometimes called crimson Scabious) or one of the varieties of Japanese burnet (Sanguisorba obtusa.) Both have small lollipop like flowers atop stiff stems that move in the breeze. Or what about the ornamental drumstick onion (Allium sphaerocephalon) with its bi-colored flowers and interesting seedheads? Very easy to grow, drought and deer tolerant, inexpensive and multiplies nicely without being aggressive.

Grow drumstick alliums in groups of 12
or more to form an interesting scrim

The herbs dill and fennel rely on their soft, feathery foliage rather than flowers to offer a scrim. Indeed be sure to deadhead the fennel to prevent prolific self seeding. The bronze variety of fennel is especially attractive.

Grasses which have a basal clump of foliage and tall inflorescences (flowers) are ideal for adding mystery. Two of the best are moor grass ‘Skyracer’ (Molinia arundinacea) and the giant feather grass (Stipa gigantea). These have it all – movement, sound, delicate texture, food for the birds and sufficiently visually arresting to catch your attention even from a distance. Remember to also make the most of back lighting and you will create a memorable vignette.

So loosen up your design. Add one or more of these gauzy plants and create a little mystery in your garden.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Shimmering Silvers

The soft, felted leaves of the butterfly bush 'Lochinch' beg to be touched

My ‘garden-in waiting’ is getting closer to planting. After months of observation, preparing new beds, emptying existing beds of invasive weeds, dealing with serious drainage problems, clearing thickets of alders, cottonwoods and buried concrete (seriously) and adding in the hardscape my fingers are itching to get some plants into the ground. Being on well water we appreciate more than ever what a precious commodity it is, and since we can’t even get a hosepipe to some of the new areas we are waiting until fall and the inevitable rains to help the transition.
Close up of the 'Lochinch' flower

Of course that doesn’t stop frequent trips to the nurseries (see my Facebook page for some of the treasures I have been gathering and drooling over). When you can start from scratch it is easier to plan where each tree and shrub will go as well as balance the textures, shapes and color combinations, although I must admit it is still hard not to just make a list of all my favorites and work out where to put them later!
Artmesia 'Silvermound'
makes a wonderful feathery
dome. Like most silver
leaved plants it is drought
tolerant once established

One thing I am very conscious of and perhaps am known for as a designer, is the use of color echoes and contrast. As much as I love purple and chartreuse foliage I don’t want a garden entirely filled with those. Blue and glaucous shades are easy to incorporate and add gentle contrast while variegation really helps tie different color stories together and set the stage for new color combinations and I mustn’t lose sight of the fact that green is also a color! However, I want to add silver tones also, to catch and reflect the light and to add a little splash of something different.

I love the repetition of colors and shapes
in this border. The yellow spikes of the
red hot poker (Kniphofia) add nice
contrast. Lavender cotton (Santolina)
and daisy bush (Brachyglottis syn. Senecio)
add silver notes
Photo credit ; Andrew Lawson
On a recent visit to a nursery I scanned the sea of exciting trees and shrubs looking for something that would catch my eye. With so many plants now available with golden or burgundy varieties they don’t act as focal points when too many are dotted around, as my eye never found somewhere to stop – until I spied something sparkle at the very back. It turned out to be the ‘Lochinch’ butterfly bush (Buddleia fallowiana) with its large, felted silver leaves. The fragrant flowers are equally beautiful with long cones in rich lavender, each dotted with a distinct orange eye. For now it is in a container on my patio where the hummingbirds get drunk daily on its nectar. I have it combined with white bacopa to echo the silvery shades, lilac swan river daisy (Brachysome) to repeat the lilac blooms and deep black sweet potato vine (Ipomoea) for contrast. I also squeezed in some of the velvety annual ivy geranium ‘Black magic’ for depth. Butterfly bushes are invasive in some areas. However by cutting it back by 2/3rd each spring and deadheading as needed I don’t anticipate a problem.

Swaying in the breeze, the willowleaf pear
adds movement and sound as well
as a break from the more predictable
greens and purple foliage colors.
Looking for inspiration in garden magazines is a good way to get new ideas and take virtual garden tours. Again I realized that it was the silver which stood out from the crowd, especially the willowleaf pear (Pyrus salicifolia ‘Pendula’). This weeping variety can add much needed contrast in form and the narrow willow-like leaves shimmer and sway in the slightest breeze, reminiscent of the quaking aspens as they whisper their secrets.

Silverbush glistens in the sunshine
like a multitude of mirrors

In containers, a rockery or at the front of the sunny border the evergreen silverbush (Convolvulus cneorum) forms a soft mound of metallic silver. Pink buds open to white funnel shaped flowers, each 1” across with a soft yellow throat. Unlike its promiscuous cousin the bindweed, this relative is very well behaved!

For a soft feathery texture look to silvermound (Artemisia schmidtiana); one of the few wormwoods which isn’t invasive. In the larger landscape this looks best planted en masse to form hummocks, but in smaller gardens it can serve as a smaller focal point, perhaps accenting a birdbath or small piece of statuary. This perennial may die down in winter but the spring and summer display is worth the wait.

If you would like more ideas here are two wonderful books I can recommend;

Elegant silvers by Jo Ann Gardner & Karen Bussolini

Foliage by Nancy Ondra

More of my articles you might enjoy;

Color in the garden

Color Echoes - the easy way to play with color
Adding Sparkle with Variegated Plants

Our garden journey

Don't tell me about bog gardens!
It's all a load of MooDoo
Garden Invaders & How to Evict Them.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Hidden Beauty.

Colocasia 'Diamond head' reveals dramatic veins and
new colors when backlit.
I love to take photographs in my garden and the gardens of others, especially close up shots which really help me appreciate the intricate beauty of nature’s treasures. The camera focuses my eye and attention to see nuances I might otherwise have missed. Perhaps the most valuable lesson has been that of recognizing the importance of backlighting. When a leaf is lit from behind it becomes almost translucent and previously hidden colors and textures are revealed like the magic painting books of my childhood (add a sweep of a wet brush to a seemingly white page and blue skies and green grass would mysteriously appear).
As light passes through the fern like leaves
of the golden locust trees, their fragile
beauty becomes apparent.
Photo credit; Alyson Ross-Markley

It is a phenomenon you have probably seen many times, especially when enjoying a walk in fall, peering up through the canopy of autumn leaves to the clear blue sky above. Red leaves glow as though on fire while yellow tones take on an ethereal quality, bathing you in a pool of golden light.

Recognizing this opens up new design opportunities and considerations. For example after working underneath our golden locust tree (Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia’) just a few days ago I looked up through the foliage to marvel anew at their luminosity and realized what a perfect addition they would be to a dappled woodland glade we are developing, especially if I place them in such a way that the meandering path will pass directly underneath their waving branches.
Lit from behind, the glowing foliage of the ash tree throws
'Grace' smoke bush into silhouette.
My photo

My favorite smoke bush (Cotinus sp.) without a doubt is the variety ‘Grace’ with its dusky blue-purple leaves, beautiful when viewed from any angle. When lit from behind the red tones dominate and change its appearance completely. I want to plant more of these where they can be seen with the western setting sun behind them while I sip an evening glass of wine. The soft, low angled light at that time of day is a photographer’s dream, which we as gardeners and designers can learn from.

Then there are the tropical plants I enjoy in the warmer months here in Seattle. Canna ‘Tropicanna’ has been photographed in this way by many artists but I never fail to be impressed by the colorful stripes within the large leaves that although visible from the upper surface are highlighted when light shines through.
Canna leaf
Photo credit; One Thousand Words Photography

The giant elephant ears ‘Diamond Head’ (Colocasia esculenta) is one of my favorite tender plants. Standing erect on thick black bamboo-like stems the tightly rolled green spires slowly unfurl to reveal huge heart shaped leaves of glossy black. Peer underneath the canopy to discover the striking network of cranberry colored veins spreading like fingers across the green tinged plane.

There are many more wonderful examples waiting for you to discover. Take time to walk on the ‘shady side’ and see your garden from a new perspective.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Design Inspiration - The Lure of an Allée

The impressive pleached allee in the Boboli Gardens
Florence, Italy. Carefully trained to form a verdant
tunnel, one can feel the almost magnetic pull to enter
and explore.

There is something magical about walking along a tree lined avenue or allée. The straight route emphasizes a sense of purpose, directing the feet and framing an ultimate destination such as a sculpture or fountain. The trees planted on either side are of the same type, creating uniformity along its length and visual strength.
How do we translate this to the garden landscape, especially smaller spaces and what sort of trees could be used?

There are several questions to consider when selecting trees for such a feature;
  • What is the ultimate height you require?
  • Do you want a natural look or a more formal style such as pleaching described below?
  • Will the tree branches be allowed to grow to the ground or will they be limbed up, and if so to what height?
  • Does the tree need to be evergreen or deciduous?
Trees with ornamental bark such as the
Crepe Myrtle lend themselves well to
lining an elegant palisade.
My photo

With those factors addressed, look for trees with a natural upright growth habit, either columnar or vase shaped  such as the 'Chanticleer' ornamental pear (Pyrus), crepe myrtles (Lagerstroemia), Liquidambar, 'Blue Arrow' juniper or Italian cypress (Cupressus sempervirens). It will take some research to narrow down your selection, checking hardiness ratings and mature size but half of the fun is the treasure hunt!

Few of us have room for an allee of sixty trees, but even six specimens planted in two parallel lines of three can make a statement. See the photo below of just six bald cypress trees (Taxodium) which have been used to focus the eye on an outdoor patio. Where space is particularly tight look for columnar varieties of trees such as 'Amanogowa' cherry tree or the columnar Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris 'Fastigiata')

My interest in this living architecture was piqued when I noticed a long, straight driveway flanked on either side by cherry trees. In spring it gave the effect of an endless confetti strewn promenade, waiting patiently for the entrance of the bride and groom. The effect changed but was not lost during the other seasons, as the burgundy leaves of summer gave way to fiery hues in fall. Even bare the silhouettes of the branches against the wintery skies clearly marked the intended route.

The branches of lime trees are braided together to
create this allee at Sissinghurst Castle, UK

A variation of this design is the pleached allée - a technique that weaves branches together to form a raised hedge. It is a method of adding structure in the garden without the use of arbors, pergolas or trellises to create a living, leafy tunnel. Not every tree can be trained this way. Lime trees (Tilia - known as linden trees in the USA) hornbeams (Carpinus sp.), beech (Fagus sp.), sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) and apple trees are all suitable, but as with the traditional allée, only one tree species should be selected. Maintenance of pleached trees can be high due to the need for constant pruning but for those with time or manpower it makes a memorable and dramatic feature. For more information on pleaching see this link.

A short allee of bald cypress trees remind
the homeowners of their childhood home.
By keeping the trees limbed up, the path
is not obstructed and the destination
clearly visible.
Photo credit; Pam Penick
So often we are encouraged to design meandering paths in order to create interest. Indeed that is an invaluable design technique to make a small garden seem larger and to provide partially obscured ‘garden moments’  along the way. There are times, however, when a direct pathway is needed or perhaps inherited. The temptation is to flank this with an odd assortment of plant material as space dictates. If this path leads to somewhere important – even your front door, this may be an opportunity for an allée. Perhaps you have a direct route from the home to a secondary building such as a studio or garage? An allée could connect the two, adding importance to the ancillary structure. What about linking the home to your kitchen garden or a rose garden? This would be especially effective if these were designed in a more formal style such as a boxwood framed knot garden, perhaps with an attractive bench at the far end.

An avenue of white barked birch trees lead the eye to
an outdoor dining area. Note how the columns of the
dining pergola beautifully continue the theme.
Photo and design credit; Blueline Landscape 

What is the difference between an allee and a hedge? A hedge is a solid barrier whereas although the canopy of an allee may be dense, especially if the trees have been pleached, the spacing of the tree trunks is such that meandering in and out of the allee is possible. An allee therefore encourages direction whereas a hedge determines it.

So give it some thought. Stand back and view your home and garden from a distance. Is there an area which would benefit from stronger lines, a sense of geometry? Is there a special feature that you would like to enhance or draw attention to? Does there need to be a clearer sense of direction? Remember an allée is a type of promenade and that very word means to walk. This should be a memorable journey to somewhere or something important; not a mad dash to the garbage cans!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Finding Eden

Serene, naturalistic and bountiful.
Photo courtesy of One Thousand Words Photography

I’m a rebel. Can’t help it. Tell me I can’t do something and stand well back!

Maybe this is why I have mixed feelings when I read books and articles on the latest ‘gardening trends’. Depending upon your belief system, a garden was created for man(kind). It was there, ready, waiting and perfect. It had been created without reference to design gurus or horticultural textbooks. And it was “good” (well OK apart from one nasty snake).

Then man got in on the act and the rest as they say is history.

Think back even fifty years (yes I was around then – just) and consider how many garden trends have come in and out of fashion. I have seen Victorian ‘bedding out’ schemes come and go (those rigid rows of red geraniums, blue lobelia and white alyssum that stood to attention like armies of toy soldiers), the romantic and overly abundant English perennial border be considered an essential part of any ‘real’ garden – and then scoffed at, stark ultra contemporary landscapes be considered chic and also boring and Piet Oudolf’s naturalistic style landscapes with extensive drifts of rustling grasses and perennials now heralded as the way to go.
Elegant, traditional and simple. Is this what you are 
drawn to?
Photo courtesy of Proven Winners

Now think about it; if we obsessed with changing our style every time an element became unfashionable we’d spend more time creating compost than a garden. Here is where I have an issue (and I know I’ll get backlash from quite a few avid designers) – I don’t care what style is ‘in’ as long as my garden is a reflection of me

When considering if my design ‘works’ I listen to my heart. Do I pause to inhale deeply, searching for the source of that elusive perfume or simply to appreciate the scent of the warm earth on a summers evening? Do I stop to stroke the velvety leaves of lambs’ ears (Stachys byzantina) or run my fingers casually through a stand of tall grasses?  Do I peer into the depths of an Oriental poppy to gaze in wonder at the purple threads waving like the tentacles of a sea anemone? Do I stand beneath a tree, gazing skywards through the dappled canopy to better understand the magic of translucent light? Do I marvel at the many shades of green and how they can play in harmony or provide contrast to divine a subtle tapestry?

To some roses are a 'must have', to
others they are considered too much work
My photo

These to me are the hallmarks of success.

When creating a garden for ourselves we can get so caught up in doing it ‘right’, referring first to one book then another. We can learn about grasslands, woodland forests and drought tolerant design. We can research a wildly romantic English garden, a formal knot garden, an ultra contemporary concrete and grass design or a tropical paradise. But you eventually need to put your reading glasses down and pick your spade up. Looking to others for inspiration and fresh ideas is enlightening and might help you narrow down what you are really drawn to. However, this is your garden. It will change and it will evolve – gardens are meant to do that. Those changes should come about according to your timetable not that of the garden fashion industry, however.

Find your own Eden.

“………….and it was good”.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Love Affair with Lavender –Part 2

The many shades of heaven
One of the most frequent questions I am asked is how best to prune lavender. While pruning is necessary to extend the life of the shrub, done incorrectly it is certain death!


First it is important to recognize the difference between old and new wood or growth.
Old wood - stems from previous years which have become brittle and woody like a twig.
New wood - the current season’s growth is softer and flexible

The degree to which the shrubs are cut back depends upon where you live. However, regardless of climate pruning needs to be done immediately after flowering.

Here in the Seattle area our winters aren’t usually too bad so in late August I shear off the remaining flower stalks and approximately one third to one half of the new growth to create a nice tidy hummock. A pair of basic garden shears makes quick work of this. Since I am pruning in late summer the lavender has time for the flush of new growth stimulated by the trimming to toughen up a bit before the cold weather hits.  
Sometimes you just can't get enough
Those who live in areas with very harsh and/or early winters would be better just to do a light tidy-up trim at this time, removing no more than a quarter of the new wood. This acts as an insurance policy; if the winter kills some of the top growth you will still have plenty of healthy shoots beneath. Then in spring (March or April, again depending upon your weather) cold-climate gardeners are able to do the ‘final’ pruning and re-shaping by cutting further into the newer growth.

Old lavender bushes can sometimes be renovated by making deeper cuts but my experience has been NEVER to prune into the ‘old wood’. Sometimes latent buds in the old wood will grow but not always so I don’t risk it.
Photo courtesy of Purple Haze Lavender Farm, Sequim WA


Once the color is bright and vivid it is time to start cutting. Cut the flower stems during the cool of the morning after the dew has dried. In humid areas, try to cut on dry days.

If the lavender wands are placed in just an inch of water they will often dry in the vase. However, if you are cutting larger quantities of lavender for drying tie bunches of stems together with string and hang upside down in a cool, airy place – under shady eaves works well. Once dry the buds can be stripped off the stems and used in pot pourri, sachets or cooking.

Oils are distilled to use
in many products.
Photo courtesy of Purple
Haze Lavender Farm, WA


Many varieties of this herb lend themselves to cooking and have a 
wonderful light summery taste as well as a pleasing aroma. English lavender (L. angustifolia) has the sweetest fragrance and is the most commonly used. The favorite variety of English lavender used at the Purple Haze Lavender Farm in Sequim, WA is 'Melissa'. The lavandins (L x intermedia) have a bolder flavor and of these 'Provence' is suitable for cooking.

The adventurous chef will find many ways to experiment including using lavender syrups or lavender creams with berries, blackcurrants, cherries, figs, ginger, lemon, orange, plum and vanilla.
My favorite recipe has to be Lavender Ice Cream which I first tried on a hot summers day, sitting amidst an endless rolling sea of fragrant purple mounds listening to the bees getting drunk on the summer bounty. Heaven. That recipe is reproduced below. For more ideas enjoy this link from the Purple Haze Lavender Farm.

Lavender Ice Cream

3/4 cup honey
1 tsp dried lavender in a tea ball or gauze
1 cup half and half (pouring cream cream)
2 cups heavy cream (double cream)
7 egg yolks

  • Pour the half and half and cream into a heavy saucepan and add lavender. Warm for 5 mins then remove lavender. 
  • Whisk egg yolks until frothy
  • Slowly pour half the cream mixture into the eggs while whisking continuously
  • Add this back to the pan and heat on low, stirring constantly for 5 mins
  • Strain mixture into a bowl and add honey
  • Chill and then freeze according to ice cream maker manufacturer's instructions

Sunday, July 3, 2011

A Love Affair with Lavender– Part 1

 Capture the essence of summer while you can.

There are certain plants which I just can’t imagine a garden without; you can read about a few of them in my earlier post ‘Ramblings of a Romantic Gardener’. Now that summer is here and the garden is coming into its full glory I realize that there was one glaring omission; lavender.

In our last garden I grew several hedges of the billowing  pale blue ‘Provence’ lavender using it to  line the pathway to our front door and also wrap around a semi-secluded patio. As I am re-designing the landscape for this home I have several areas in mind which will be perfect for lavender. The question is, which one?

With so many to choose from you can be sure to find the perfect variety for your garden. Flower color is not limited to shades of blue as there are white, pink and even yellow cultivars to choose from. Sizes range from the petite and orderly to the wild and woolly! Foliage may be green, blue, silver, or variegated and the scent can range from heavenly to hospital-like (think antiseptic).

In this post I’m going to focus on the different types of lavender most readily available to help you navigate the options at your local nursery.
The rabbit ears identify this as a Spanish lavender
Photo courtesy Mountain Valley Growers

Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas) is characterized by its intriguing pinecone shaped flowers topped with ‘rabbit ears’. It typically grows low and wide and is one of the earliest to bloom. Native to Mediterranean areas it seems to do better than most in very hot and humid climates. I find these are more suited to the landscape or as solo plants in a container. They do not seem to play well with friends in a mixed container design since they spread so wide.  ‘Otto Quast’ is a popular variety, hardy in zones 8-9 (7 on a good day)  with all purple flowers and light green foliage.

English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) such as ‘Munstead’ and ‘Hidcote’ is the species I usually recommend when a client wants something compact. Both have foliage approx. 12-18” tall and wide with flower spikes adding another foot so these make perfect short hedges. Munstead is hardy to zone 5.
I love it when lavender farms label their plants - a 
great way to compare varieties side by side.

English lavender hybrids or lavandins  (Lavandula x intermedia) are my favorite for their sheer exuberance. Actually it is here that I have a confession to make. For years I have referred to these as 'French lavender' but I now realize my plant genetics are embarrassingly rusty; I can only apologize to my French friends! These bloom mid-late summer and are the big boys of the lavender world. ‘Provence’ and ‘Grosso’ are two fabulous, well known varieties, 'Grosso' being a deeper blue and the lavender of choice for oil distillation. 'Provence' on the other hand is used in pot pourri and other dried preparations. The variety ‘Fred Boutin’ is a little shorter, was discovered in 1980 and has beautiful silvery leaves and a fine perfume. Now in self defense I think you can understand my confusion as to their heritage.. Hardy to zone 5

French lavender (Lavandula dentata) on other other hand has beautifully serrated leaves but otherwise have a similar growth habit to the lavandins. Goodwin Creek Grey (Lavandula x ginginsii)  is a French lavender hybrid and one of the prettiest with deep purple flowers held on long spikes and a little shorter than some of its relatives. Hardy to zone 7.

The yellow and French lavenders
bloom at the same time so make
striking companions.
Photo courtesy Mountain
Valley Growers

Yellow lavender (Lavandula viridis) will be a head turner for sure. Big and bold, the chiffon yellow rabbit ears of this rare lavender will definitely get noticed. 3’ tall and hardy to zone 8.

'Hidcote pink' lavender is 
an unusual English variety.
Photo courtesy 
Willow Creek Gardens

Cultivation basics
  • Well drained soil is essential
  • Soil pH 6.5-7.5
  • Full sun
  • Occasional water. Lavender are drought tolerant once established but for the first few years and for best performance a through deep watering once or twice a week is best. 
  • No fertilizers are needed if the soil has some organic matter such as compost added.

Of course there are many more and indeed there are whole books dedicated to the subject of lavenders. This is my favorite;

Lavender: The Grower's Guide
By Virginia McNaughton
192 pages, 187 photos
May 2000 

In Part 2 I’ll look at how best to harvest and prune lavenders as well as a few recipes to try using this special herb. Meanwhile look to see if there is a Lavender Festival near you this summer. For those in Western Washington don't miss the  Sequim Lavender Festival July 15-17th